One of 273 Master Sommeliers worldwide currently, Evan Goldstein has written four books, co-authored several more, and is a contributing editor to The Oxford Companion to Wine. In September 2022, Goldstein was recruited by the San Francisco Giants, his hometown pro baseball team, becoming the first ever Master Sommelier to work for a US professional sports organisation.
Sadly, this rich, honeyed grape variety is disappearing from the vineyards of Hermitage and other appellations in the northern Rhône where it once held court. But Roussanne is a grape you should know. Amazingly, even though it comes across as rich and exotic, with an apparent lack of structure, it can hold that pose for years… without botox!
Roussanne’s roots lie in the central Rhône valley. Precisely when it originated is not known, but the grape’s more recent history is well documented. In the mid-20th century, many of the plantings in France became infected with fanleaf virus and were replaced with the less interesting but more resilient and consistent Marsanne.
True Roussanne was believed to have arrived in California in the 1980s, but the original source of California Roussanne turned out to be Viognier. It’s evident that even in today’s world of modern genetic testing and carefully propagated cuttings, one mistake in sourcing a varietal type can have far-reaching consequences. Not until the 1990s were real cuttings of Roussanne planted.
Labour of love
Roussanne is regarded as uneconomical to produce because it is finicky about growing conditions: it isn’t a large cropper and is susceptible to rot and mildew. And to top it off, the berries ripen late, making rot an even bigger risk.
In contrast to the challenge presented in the vineyard, Roussanne is flexible and forgiving in the cellar. It can be successfully fermented in large or small oak, stainless steel or concrete. It can be harvested at lower sugars but still have ample body, or can be left to increase in ripeness without losing all its acidity. It can sing solo or play well with its relatives (Marsanne, Rolle, Viognier, etc). Finally, Roussanne ages very well due to its unusual combination of richness, minerality and balancing acidity; the best wines can be enjoyed up to 15 years or more after bottling.
When Roussanne sings with food, that song often reminds me of Viognier. As with Viognier, its food-friendliness is underrated. The best wines are rich, silky and balanced, with a panoply of tropical and ripe stone fruit flavours. I love Roussanne with exotic dishes, from north African tagines to pork marinated in cumin and ginger.
If the flavours in your dish are less exuberant, use textures that will pick up on the richer texture of the wine. Thick and creamy soups, slow-cooked root vegetables (like parsnips and carrots), rich cream- and butter-infused pastas and grains (risotto, polenta), oily nuts (especially macadamias and cashews), and richer preparations of fish, shellfish and white meats – all are great tablemates for Roussanne and Roussanne-based blends.
Discover Roussanne: Goldstein’s two to try
Château de Campuget, 1753 Roussanne Sans Sulfites, Rhône 2021 (campuget.com) From third-generation Campuget winemaker Franck-Lin Dalle, this is bottled as an IGP (by French AP law, to be labelled as Costières de Nîmes wines must be blends). It demonstrates what pure Roussanne can deliver in a natural environment – native yeast ferment, no added sulphur, and fully expressive deliciousness of the variety.
Tablas Creek, Roussanne, Paso Robles, California 2020 (tablascreek.com) This vintage is coincidentally the winery’s 20th varietal bottling of its most significant white grape. Jason Haas’ heroic commitment to Rhône grapes in California’s Central Coast is admirable and leading. This Roussanne is characteristic, with balanced weight, texture and aromatic complexity.